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​Amy Florian on What to Say (and What Not to Say) to Grieving Clients

WHO: Amy Florian

WHAT: Educator, author, life transition expert, and founder/CEO of Corgenius 

WHAT'S ON HER MIND: “The financial adviser who understands that every transition triggers grief and understands how to talk to their clients is way ahead of the adviser who knows what to do with the money but doesn’t know the best things to say on a personal level.”

If you’ve ever told a client, friend, or family member “I’m so sorry” upon learning about the loss of a loved one—at best, you’re in good company (it’s a nearly universal response); at worst, you created an awkward moment in which the grieving person was not sure what to say back.

With some education from Amy Florian, you will learn better ways to communicate with those who are grieving.

Florian is a fellow in thanatology (the highest level of certification in the field of grief studies). She is a well-known speaker and teacher, and serves as CEO of Corgenius, a training company she founded in 2008 to teach health care and financial services professionals how to support and interact with a person who is grieving.

But make no mistake: Florian is not teaching financial planners how to be psychologists. Rather, she’s teaching planners how to do a better job at providing grief support.

“These are the human things that we all should be doing, we’ve just never been taught,” Florian said during a recent interview. “We need to be taught so we can support each other better—whether it’s in the office, or in our families, in our friendships, at our church, at our workplace, or wherever.”

The Journal recently sat down with Florian to learn more about the different kinds of grief, the various ways people handle grief, and some best practices to use with grieving clients.

1. You write on your website that it is your greatest hope that everyone in our society learns how to deal with grief, illness, and death. From where does this passion stem?

The passion really comes from a combination of personal and professional experience. I was widowed when I was 25 and our son was 7 months old. I was living in a small town in rural Iowa and literally nobody knew what to say to me. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody knew how to help—not my financial adviser, my doctor, my family, my friends, the community. I essentially had to navigate my way through grief by the seat of my pants.

Later, I had the opportunity to participate in seminars on grief and loss offered by a wonderful man who encouraged me to write and teach. I discovered how hungry people are to understand, to know both how to cope when something happens to them, and also how to help when it happens to someone they care about. Everywhere I went I was making a difference, and the feedback I received was almost overwhelming.

So I went on to fill in my personal experience with advanced education. I founded support groups. I was hired to teach at universities and graduate programs, and now I travel the country teaching professionals how to truly support their clients and coworkers.

The one thing I love most about what I do is that I don’t just make a difference professionally. I am privileged to make a genuine difference in people’s lives, to let grieving people know that they aren’t sick and they aren’t crazy, and to make the grief process a little bit easier as a result.

The [financial] advisers themselves tell me things they’ve never told anyone else. They share their stories. They cry, they laugh, they heal. It is the most meaningful and fulfilling work I could ever hope to do. Advisers say I changed the entire way they do business; that they’re getting referrals they’d never gotten before, and they’re keeping intergenerational business. But most of all, they find the same thing I do: they are able to fill the need that most advisers tell me is the reason they got into this business—they truly want to help people.

If I could teach everyone in this country how to heal from grief and how to support others when they’re grieving, this country would be a different place, a better place, a healthier place, a more compassionate place. So I just keep on going, one person, one event, one conference, one article at a time.

2. Grief is not just experienced when someone dies; it also comes with many of life’s major transitions. What other kinds of grief should financial advisers be aware of?

You are absolutely correct; grief does not result only from a death. Grief is triggered whenever there is a break in an attachment, whenever we have to leave behind a cherished possession, a person, a capability or a function, a home, a role that we’ve held in our family or our business or the world, a dream we realize we’re never going to achieve. Even our belief in the way the world works. Any time we have to leave behind something we’re attached to, something we’re comfortable with, familiar with, or love and we have to go forward and learn how to live without it, that triggers grief.

So of course, death triggers grief. But so does divorce, job loss, being robbed, or even losing money in a volatile market. Aging, with all the physical and functional and practical changes that come with it. Changes in family structure, like becoming an empty nester or having boomerang kids, or having to care for an elderly relative. Illness, or getting a serious diagnosis. Not getting into a certain college, or not getting that hoped-for promotion. Being poorly treated by a system like health care, or church, or government that you thought you could count on. Dementia or any of those progressive diseases. The list goes on and on and on.

In fact, even positive transitions trigger grief because we have to leave something behind every time we move to something new, even if it’s something we choose. When we get married, that involves grief because we have to leave behind being single. And let’s face it, there are some advantages to being single. When we have a baby, our entire life changes and sometimes we just grieve that we can’t get a good night’s sleep, or go to the grocery store without carrying a minor U-Haul. When we retire and have to leave behind our status and our colleagues and our daily routine.

The financial adviser who understands that every transition triggers grief and understands how to talk to their clients is way ahead of the adviser who knows what to do with the money but doesn’t know the best things to say on a personal level.

3. What do you feel are the most common mistakes advisers make when communicating with grieving clients?

There are so many mistakes. If I had to pick No. 1, though, it would be ignoring their grief or deflecting away from it. Like the rest of our society, advisers are never trying to be callous. They’re certainly not trying to be cruel. And yet, they’ve never been taught how to engage a grieving client, what to say or do or what not to say or do. So the entire topic of talking with a grieving client is highly uncomfortable and awkward, and no one wants to be uncomfortable and awkward, especially when they’re taught that they’re a professional who’s supposed to be calm and self-assured.

As a result, when a grieving client comes into the office, the adviser may ask an ineffective question like, “How are you?” or use a standard platitude like, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” But then what? They’ve never been taught where to go from there. And since they believe that now they have at least expressed their sympathy, they feel free to switch back to business and the more comfortable terrain of investments and portfolios.

Likewise, the grieving client comes in a month later, or two months later, or six months later. What does the adviser do if the client is still broken up and crying? Or what if they’re stoic and acting as if everything is normal? Do you ignore it? Do you bring it up? Or are you just opening old wounds? Do you address it at all? And if you address it, how?

There is very little standard guidance for what to do months down the road, except to tell the clients to put it behind them and get on with life now, which doesn’t work at all. I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, here. Some advisers are better than others. Some spend more time than others, or they have a better understanding, especially if they’ve been through something themselves. In fact, I’ve met a lot of advisers who do a better job than most. But everyone could raise the bar. Everyone could do better than they currently do if only they knew how. And their clients would notice it, and they’d really appreciate it.

4. In your guidance to financial advisers dealing with grieving clients, you advise against handing a box of tissues to a grieving client. Why is that?

This is surprising to most people, because we’re taught that it’s helpful to hand somebody a box of tissues. But there are two reasons why it’s not; one little one and one big one. The little one is that if you hand your client a box of tissues, the client has to take one. It would seem impolite or awkward if they didn’t. In other words, you’ve taken your client out of control. Grieving people already feel terribly out of control and anything you can do to keep them in control is a good thing; even just little decisions.

But the bigger reason is the unconscious message behind that box—“stop it; dry your tears; use this, you’re making me uncomfortable.” Not every single client will hear it that way, but too many of them do to risk it. Sometimes in support groups, they call it the “shut up box.” You don’t want to do that to your client.

So what do you do instead? Place the box on your desk within easy reach of clients (with all the transitions and situations that trigger grief, you’ve got a grieving client in your office way more often than you think). I recommend considering making tissue boxes part of the décor. Have a box on the admin’s desk, a box in the waiting area, a box on your desk, a box in the conference room; wherever clients will be.

When tears well up or sniffling starts, you or your admin or anyone in the office can just nod at the tissue box and say, “Oh, you can use our tissues if you want; it’s up to you.” That keeps the clients in control. And it also lets them know that they don’t have to dry up their tears for you. You’re not like everybody else who’s just trying to cheer them up or make them feel better; you’re comfortable with their experience.

Of course not every client will cry. Not every man will cry, not every woman will cry, but a lot of them will if they have permission. Everyone needs permission and comfort when they do cry.

5. I’ve heard that there are differences between how men and women grieve. Is that true? What different types of grievers are there?

That is an interesting question because so many people believe that men grieve differently than women. That’s sort of true, but not really. Research shows that men and women don’t grieve differently based on their gender. In fact, there are two major styles of grieving; the instrumental style and the intuitive style. And although more men lean one way and more women lean the other, a lot of us are right in between. And there’s also a lot of crossover between the genders.

So you dare not judge how a client is going to grieve based on whether that client is a man or a woman. Instead, watch for their grieving style.

More men tend toward the instrumental style of grief. They experience grief more in their head than in their heart. They have a narrower focus, more on the facts and the statistics than on emotions. And they want to take action. Their question is, what can I do to get through my grief?

If they talk with someone, they are more likely to talk one-on-one instead of going to a support group. An instrumental client will be more interested in, for instance, starting a foundation in their loved one’s memory, or organizing a fundraiser to benefit an organization that has to do with the cause of death. They appreciate reading books about grief that are more factual and educational. You can have a referral list of grief coaches or counselors if they wish to talk with an objective person who can help them get through the experience better.

On the other side, more women tend toward the intuitive style of grief. They experience grief more in their heart than their head. They focus on the big picture, not the little things; and they focus more on the emotions. They want to be around people. They want to talk. Their question is: who can I talk to to get through my grief? They are more likely to go to a support group first than to go to an individual grief coach or counselor.

An intuitive client will need more hand holding and more listening. If they do advocacy work or foundation work, they prefer to work closely with an organization or group that’s already well established so they can join the efforts of others. For them, you can have a referral list of support groups in the area that they or their family members may wish to check out. They appreciate books that have stories of other grieving people in similar situations so that they can learn from the experience of others.

But remember—and this is critical—despite these general tendencies, it is not true that men are instrumental and women are intuitive. A lot of us are in the middle. Some people process one type of loss more like an instrumental, and another type of loss more like an intuitive. Or, we might bounce back and forth between the styles.

The important thing is for the adviser to figure out where they are: do you tend to be instrumental, intuitive, or in between? Recognize your perspective and your bias, because that’s what you’re bringing to the conversation. But then allow your client to be somewhere else, regardless of their gender. It’s all normal. And even though there are similarities in grief, everyone grieves in their own way.

6. Your book, No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients through the Toughest Times of Life, includes information on dementia. What steps should an adviser take if he or she suspects a client is showing signs of dementia?

Dementia is a non-death type of grief. The grief begins when the client and/or their family member starts noticing enough signs to be afraid. It intensifies with the diagnosis and continues through the process as that client loses function and eventually dies. They grieve every step of the way. It’s a tragedy that’s being played out in our country over and over again.

One in eight people over 65 have dementia, and by the time you reach age 85, it’s approaching half. This is such a huge topic. I can only offer the briefest overview in the context of this interview, but I want to give a few practical directives to at least get it into advisers’ awareness.

No. 1, there is an entire array of documents to get in place beforehand. In fact, I recommend making them part of the intake process for all new clients and also part of the annual review with each ongoing client. If you wait until a client is already diminished or showing strong signs of dementia, you’re too late. It is absolutely imperative to get necessary things in place ahead of time.

No. 2, advisers need to be educated on dementia in general, and especially on things to be watching for.

No. 3, when an adviser does notice worrisome signs, the first person to talk to is the client, using language that deflects resistance and anger, and recognizes the emotional component of what’s happening.

No. 4, the next step is to involve the compliance department and to contact those family members and powers of attorney that the client has given permission to contact as part of that initial documentation process.

No. 5, when there is a diagnosis, advisers need to know how to provide resources to help with decision-making in finances, and to walk the entire grieving family through the process. They also need to watch for signs of elder abuse—physical, psychological, or financial.

And finally, No. 6, after the death advisers need to be there for the services if at all possible. They need to know how to write cards and when to send them, and they need to effectively support the family afterward.

All advisers need to develop their firm’s practices around issues of dementia and diminished capacity, because if they haven’t faced it yet, they will. Guaranteed.

7. When an adviser learns of a death in the client’s family, what’s the first thing he or she should do?

It will vary depending on circumstances, but in general, the most important step is to contact grieving clients as soon as possible. The purpose is not to tell them you are sorry, it is to let them tell the story, to reassure that you’re there for them, and to find out how you can help. So start with an open-ended question and then follow the client’s lead. You should always follow the client’s lead on whether or how much they want to talk.

For example: the adviser gets a call from a client saying, “Hi, I’m just calling to tell you that Jim died last night.” A potential response can be, “Oh my gosh, I can hardly believe it. How did you find out?” or “Who is there with you?” or “What is happening now?” Ask questions, because they need to tell the story; it’s how we make it real.

When something bad happens to you, you find yourself walking around saying, this didn’t happen to me, this is a nightmare; I’m going to wake up tomorrow and it’s all going to be gone. When we hear the words coming out of our own mouths over and over again, that is how we start to realize that this did actually happen. So invite them to tell the story.

Many times, clients will jump right in and start talking. If they say they don’t have time to talk because there’s so much to do, or if they do talk and tell you their story but they’re winding down on telling the story, then you follow up with, “I’d really like to help. What do you have on your list that I can do for you? Can I make some phone calls? Can I pick people up from the airport? Can I contact the insurance company?”

Don’t talk about business; that can wait. Just let clients know that you care and you’re there to help.

8. What’s wrong with saying to a grieving client, “I’m so sorry”?

This is another surprising one for most people. There are a number of problems with “I’m so sorry.” First of all, it’s what everyone says. No matter how much you mean it, by the time someone hears it for the 357th time, it loses its impact. Actually, even if you truly mean it, it’s all about you. It tells me you are sad. It also tells me you care, but the focus is on you and how you feel, not on the grieving client, and that’s backwards.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s a conversation stopper. You say to me, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” What do I say back? Thank you? That’s what most people say, but it doesn’t quite fit when you think about it. It leaves you with nowhere to go but into an awkward moment, because nobody knows what to say after that.

Grievers excuse the repetitive phrase and they try to concentrate on the compassion that they hope is truly behind it.

Now, I will grant that some studies of grieving people have reported that “I’m sorry,” is among the most comforting things people say. But if you look closer at those studies, it’s because people didn’t know how to say anything else. In the studies, “I’m so sorry,” was compared to things like, “I know just how you feel,” or “Don’t be sad; she would want you to be happy for her,” “He lived such a good, long life,” “She’s in a better place,” or any of the other well-intentioned—but actually unintentionally hurtful—phrases we so often rely on.

Saying “I’m so sorry” is better than saying nothing at all. So although you could do much better if you just knew how, if you’re going to use it, at least make sure you take the time to look in the grieving person’s eyes, hold their hands, and say it with genuine, heartfelt compassion. Ideally, though, you learn what else to say that is so much better.

9. Most advisers will want to attend the service after a client dies, but many may be uncomfortable doing so, or may not realize that their words or actions are not as helpful as they think. What advice do you have for advisers attending a client’s service?

The most important principle to remember is that what people take away from the services, what the family still talks about weeks and months afterwards, is not all the people who came through saying “I’m so sorry,” or any of the other common but misplaced comfort phrases. They talk about the stories and the memories they heard. They may learn things about their loved one they never knew before. They may see their beloved from a different perspective, or they may be confirmed in something that they loved, too.

Everyone wants to know that their loved one’s life made a difference; that their death leaves a void in the world, and that someone will remember them besides the grieving family. So if you knew the person who died, or you have any kind of story or memory that you can tell, that’s what you want to do. Tell them you will forever remember this or that about their loved one—whether it was their smile, their sense of humor, their dedication to a cause—any story that you can tell about their loved one.

Concentrate on the memories. Ask for the back story behind one of the pictures on the picture board. Relate any kind of anecdote or praise. Remark on how much this person will be missed and what you’re going to miss about them. Reassure them that their beloved will be remembered long after the services. Then, you’re keeping the focus in the right place. You’re keeping the focus on the grieving family instead of on you, and you will have served your client really well.

10. You wrote in the Journal once how when communicating with a grieving person, too many people say, “Call me any time.” What’s wrong with that, and what should people say instead?

As you may be gathering by now, most of the things we traditionally say after a death have multiple things wrong with them. Similar to “I’m so sorry,” “Call me anytime,” is something everybody says. In fact, after the services it’s hard for the grieving person to remember who said it and who didn’t. Also, even if you say it and you think you mean it, do you really? Do you really mean I can call you at three o’clock in the morning when I can’t sleep and the tears won’t stop and I don’t think I can go on?

Everyone has limits and boundaries, and the grieving person knows it, and they don’t want to violate those. Also, grieving clients already feel like a burden because of their sadness and loss; they know they make people uncomfortable.

They also know that your life is going to proceed normally, but their lives are in shambles. They can barely formulate their needs. And even if they can, it’s too risky and too daring to pick up the phone. They end up asking themselves: how big does my need or question have to be in order to justify picking up the phone, interrupting your normal, busy, active day and asking you to fill my needs? As the grieving client, I’m just not going to do it, so don’t tell me to.

Instead, advisers need to take it upon themselves to keep in close touch. When you leave the services, promise that you’ll call the next week just to check in to see what’s happening and if there’s anything you can do to help or any questions you can answer. And then do it. Never tell a grieving person you’re going to call and fail to follow through. They will remember that. Then every time you do talk with them, especially in those first few months, whether it’s during an appointment in the office or on the phone, give them the next time you will call so they don’t have to worry about it.

Tell them they can certainly call you if they have a question in the meantime. Or, they can just write the question down so they don’t forget, because they know that you will be calling them. When you do that, you take a huge burden off the client’s shoulders. They never have to wonder if their question is too big. You let them know you will be there for them without them having to give it a second thought, and that you know how to support them in ways that others don’t.

That’s probably the greatest summary statement I could give on why learning good grief support is so crucial to an adviser. The days of competing solely on financial advice are over. Hundreds of thousands of advisers, including robos, can provide that. You can compete on service, but hundreds of thousands of advisers provide good service. What distinguishes you from them?

The answer is that you know what to do, what to say, what not to say, and how to support your clients through all of the transitions of their lives—good or bad. You’re not on the conveyer belt with everyone else saying the same things, fitting right into our death-denying society. You break the mold. You are exceptional. You are uncommonly helpful, compassionate, and supportive.

And this is especially important for young advisers. Think of the credibility a young adviser earns in the eyes of an elder client when they appear to be wise beyond their years. When they show not just financial savvy, but a deep understanding of that client’s life and family and experience. Clients are looking for more. They want to have an experience with you that justifies the fees they pay. They long to be understood and companioned.

Carly Schulaka is editor of the Journal. Contact her at HERE.

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